Labour shows the problem with a core vote strategy

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Last week’s British by-elections prompt me to make one of my occasional posts. It is about the bizarre predicament of Britain’s Labour Party and the wider question this poses for the British left.

The first thing to say about Labour is that I am not a neutral observer. As a supporter of the Liberal Democrats I have endured near continuous vitriol from Labour supporters, especially since the coalition government of 2010. It doesn’t help that these Labourites were right to predict disaster for my party – against my constant efforts to look on the bright side. So I take some satisfaction in being right this time. I cannot deny a sense of schadenfreude. Perhaps it takes a victim of delusion to recognise the phenomenon in others – though to be fair quite a few Labourites are in despair rather than delusion.

The immediate fuss is over Labour’s loss to the Conservatives of the Copeland by-election. For an opposition party to lose a seat in these circumstances is nearly unprecedented. Labour did see off a challenge from Ukip in the Stoke by-election on the same day – but they cannot take much comfort from that. Their vote fell, and they only retained the seat because Ukip and the Tories split the anti-Labour vote between them. It was a bit like the Lib Dem by election win in Eastleigh during the coalition, though the margin was much better.

But this fuss is a bit overdone. The main news politically is that Ukip is on the back foot, and the Conservatives seem to be picking up much of their vote. That’s still a big problem for Labour, though: while seeing off a threat from Ukip, the threat from the Tories has become much deadlier.

But the by-elections are only the start of it. It is Labour’s complete lack of political effectiveness since Jeremy Corbyn took over that is behind the criticism. Labour are totally unable to exploit the government’s difficulties over Brexit – a political gift that most opposition parties can only dream of. Just compare the party’s performance to that under John Smith and Tony Blair as the Conservative government pushed through the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s. Labour was then able to put aside its own differences and ambiguities over Europe to harry the Conservatives to near political death. This was an object the lesson in how to be on both sides of the argument at once – one of the chief skills in politics. Labour could unite pro and anti Brexit forces by rallying round a form of soft Brexit – and using every opportunity in Parliament to make the government’s life difficult. Instead Labour’s opposition sounds like whingeing Islington dinner table chat.

And what about opposition to austerity? The government is pressing ahead with cuts, and seems unable to handle a crisis in the NHS and social care. Schools are now under threat. Austerity was supposed to be the rallying cry for Labour under Mr Corbyn, and the basis of a popular revolt – with determined resistance both inside and outside parliament. Labour was going to employ high quality economic minds to develop an alternative narrative. Instead, Labour contents itself with more quiet whingeing, and austerity has dropped way down the list of politically current issues. The economic thinkers who had been commissioned to help the party have been sent on their way.

And Scotland? There was supposed to be a fightback here – but instead the party has fallen back to third place. At his speech to the Scottish Labour conference this weekend Mr Corbyn undermined the Labour’s Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, who is attempting to recapture the political initiative from the SNP with a call for a UK wide constitutional convention. Unable to come up with strong political initiatives himself, Mr Corbyn undermines any attempts to do so from anybody else. Politically Labour has stalled.

But a recent poll revealed something quite interesting. It confirmed Labour’s poor standing amongst the country at large, and the lack of confidence in Mr Corbyn, which is felt by over three quarters of the electorate, with remarkably few don’t knows. But among Labour’s remaining supporters, Mr Corbyn has majority support. His position looks secure.

And this reveals a problem for Labour, and the political left generally, that goes beyond Mr Corbyn’s profound lack of political competence. It is the temptation to retreat into your own comfort zone. For Labour, this process started under Ed Miliband, Mr Corbyn’s predecessor. It took the form of the so-called 35% strategy – whereby Labour was supposed to secure power by consolidating its position amongst left-leaning voters, especially those that had supported the Lib Dems, without having to persuade voters that had voted Conservative. They were relying on the idea that the right of centre vote would be split between the Tories, Ukip and coalition-supporting Lib Dems – and hoping that non-voters would rally to the party too. It left them helpless against a surging SNP in Scotland, and an entirely predictable and ruthless Tory campaign to pressure Lib Dem and Ukip voters in marginal seats.

But the idea of staying within your political comfort zone is enticing. The Liberal Democrats are now taking this up under the guise of a “core vote strategy”. This is designed to attract loyal supporters rather than marginal votes. This is more rational for the Lib Dems than it is for Labour, given how low the party’s fortunes have sunk. But neither party will pose a serious challenge to the Tories unless it works out how to appeal to marginal voters too. And neither will they be able to achieve this by forming some form of “progressive” alliance between themselves, with or without the Greens and the SNP.

And that will mean taking core supporters out of their comfort zone. Just where is open for debate. Conventional wisdom has it that this must mean embracing elements of what the left calls “neo-liberalism” – such as marketising public services and holding taxes and public spending down. This isn’t necessarily the case – but the electorate will not be convinced by the traditional left wing idea of accruing power to the centre and declaring “trust us: we are the people.” Political power is not trusted enough for that.

Personally I think Labour needs to embrace devolution of real political power to regions, municipalities and even neighbourhoods, even when it means passing it to opposition parties. This should involve a new constitutional settlement (just as Ms Dugdale advocates). And it includes breaking up central control of such hallowed institutions as the NHS and national public sector deals with trade unions. For Lib Dems I suspect it means developing a new narrative on rights – and the idea that key economic rights (as opposed to basic human rights) must be earned by contribution and residency, rather than being open to all comers. Also the parry’s doctrinaire line on the right to privacy needs to be rethought for the modern age – it feels too much like yesterday’s battle. Both parties needs to break out of the strait-jacket of political correctness and victim culture – while continuing to promote inclusion. And both parties need to think about a future Europe, rather than retreat into its past.

But once the left moves out of its comfort zone, power is there for the taking. The conservative coalition is not robust, and demographics are against it. Brexit will place huge strains on it. Populism will fail. But, alas, there are few signs that the left yet understands what it needs to do.  It may take another disaster.

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Why I’m pausing for reflection

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I have been trying to post articles twice a week. In the last few weeks that has slowed down. This week I have struggled to post anything at all.  On reflection I think it’s time to pause for a while, and reduce postings to a trickle.

Why? Partly it is plain depression – though the non-political side of my life is going well enough. After multiple shocks to the political system, that is not be surprising. I still struggle to accept that Britain is leaving the European Union, that Donald Trump is the US president, and that liberal attitudes are being thrown out in favour of nothing very coherent.

But I think it is deeper than an emotional reaction – I’m afraid I’m an Enlightenment spirit that believes that reason should rule emotion. The world has changed, and the balance of political forces has altered in ways that I have not yet understood. It is tempting to impose oversimplified models on this. For example, it is commonplace to ascribe changes to a reaction of the white working classes. But that can only be a partial explanation – there just aren’t enough white working class people for it to be more than that. All successful political movements are coalitions – and it is the unnoticed elements of that coalition that may hold the key. Guilt by liberals over the struggles of many white working class people is being used as a cover for more sinister forces – and some not so sinister ones too.

And if I don’t understand what is driving this change, the consequences of change are also obscure. Many bad things are happening as a result of the Trump presidency and Brexit – but some good things might happen too through the law of unintended consequences. Breaking up the old complacent order will force many things to be rethought – and it will not just be liberals who are discombobulated. For example, Mr Trump’s recent questioning of the two-state approach to peace in Israel may be no bad thing -as it will force Israel’s politicians to be clearer about what it is they actually want – rather than just getting in the way of US policy. In another example, Russia’s propaganda narrative about confronting western liberalism loses its power if western liberalism is in retreat. The Russians are having to be careful about what they wish for. And is it too much to hope that ethnic minority campaigners, so long dependent on a narrative of victimhood and guilt, might freshen up their story when the main competing narrative is also one of victimhood and guilt? Perhaps they might spend more time campaigning on problems that they share, rather than on what sets them apart?

And so my reaction to unfolding events is, so often, “wait and see”.  The interesting stuff has yet to emerge. Here I am departing from many other liberal observers – who are content to vent a very understandable anger. I cling to an optimism. Liberalism is experiencing a backlash that is similar in some ways to that endured in the later 19th Century. That led to calamity – a nationalist blind alley that only ended in 1945 after countless millions were killed. This time I think it is different. There are many more liberals now; our values are more deeply embedded. The forces of darkness are weaker than they look. We will turn the tide. But how, and where? That remains unclear. It will require new ideas – and a new coalition.

And so I want to spend more time reflecting, and less time simply reacting to events. I will post, but less frequently.

I started this blog almost exactly six years ago. Looking back at it, that has been six years of political retreat. The crushing loss of the British referendum on changing the electoral system in 2011 now looks like a portent. I need to need to rearm and rethink to get ahead of the game.

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Liberal protestors are not the elite; they are ordinary, frightened people

Last week I wrote about my fears that liberals are being too moral and ideological in their protests over President Trump’s regime. This will simply alienate voters who might otherwise be persuaded – and distracts attention from the regime’s weakest spot – incompetence. But at the same time the populist narrative must be fought – or else untruths are in danger of being accepted as facts.

This message came home to me after reading this article in the Guardian (a British liberal newspaper): Trump is no fascist. He is a champion for the forgotten millions. It is by John Daniel Davidson, a writer for The Federalist, a conservative US online journal. For once the article’s title is a fair summary of its content. In it he develops the pro-Trump narrative. He says that Mr Trump is a voice for many not-so-well-off Americans who feel completely let down by the presidencies of both Barack Obama and George W Bush.  He says:

America is deeply divided, but it’s not divided between fascists and Democrats. It’s more accurate to say that America is divided between the elites and everybody else, and Trump’s election was a rejection of the elites.

Now most of this article is a worthwhile read. It explains why so many Americans, perhaps even a majority, think that Mr Trump is onto something, and are unmoved by the protests. We do not need to invoke racism and misogyny to explain support for Mr Trump, however much we think these forces are lurking in the background. But two important points are lost in this, and each is central to the anti-Trump narrative.

The first point is this: who says that fascists have to be unpopular? Successful fascists (like Mussolini and Hitler) are expert at exploiting the anxieties of the “forgotten millions”, and presenting themselves as the alternative to a complacent elite. That is precisely why they are such a threat. They then use this sense of legitimacy to destroy the rule of law and constitutional checks; they turn on minorities; they try to subvert fair or truthful reporting; they have a penchant for violence and the suppression of opposition. How much Mr Trump really is all these things in his heart is an interesting question; but it is clear that his chief adviser, Steve Bannon, fits the fascist description quite closely, and he seems to be making the running. That does not make all Mr Trump’s supporters and allies fascists, or even most them. But the fear that they are being taken down a slippery slope is legitimate. That Trump supporters have genuine grievances is beside the point.

The second point is that the anti-Trumpers are people too. They haven’t necessarily done any better out of the system than the pro-Trumpers (whatever the latter think). Worse, many people feel as if they are being singled out as targets for discrimination, and even violence. We should not dismiss them, as this article does, as mere cyphers or dupes of a shadowy elite. There is real, genuine fear behind those protests, as well as quite genuine moral outrage. And these anti-Trumpers are not an insignificant minority, as implied by the term “elite”. Hillary Clinton polled more votes than Mr Trump (though this not quite the knock-down argument it might seem at first – if the election had been based on popular vote, Mr Trump’s strategy would have been different – he might have polled better in California, for example). This is not the forgotten millions versus the elite. It is a clash between two groups of forgotten millions, each of which feel marginalised for different reasons. The elites themselves, meanwhile, are mostly keeping their heads down; many are even making overtures to the Trump regime.

So two pillars of the liberal position should be this: first is that we are people too, and we have legitimate fears; second: undermining the rule of law, the constitution and the voice of opposition is attacking democracy itself. Add to this a third pillar: the Trump regime is not helping the people it is claiming to represent; it is simply creating a new set of fat cats.

But is there a crucial fourth pillar? Will liberals find have an alternative set of new policies that will do a better job of addressing the marginalised, and unravelling the coalition that brought Mr Trump to power? Alas I see no signs of that. And without that fourth pillar, the situation remains very dangerous.

So liberals must search for that policy platform that will present a real challenge to the populists. Meanwhile, though, we must not let the conservatives hijack the narrative by suggesting that liberals are a tiny elite, and that subversion of legal and constitutional processes, and journalistic objectivity, is somehow a legitimate part of the democratic process.

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